Published: April 23, 2009

U.S. shorts critical animal research, MSU scientists say at cattle genome milestone

Contact(s): Mark Fellows Media Communications office: (517) 884-0166, Theresa Casey Animal Science office: (802) 388-7444, James Ireland Animal Science office: (517) 290-7074

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The landmark sequencing of the domestic cattle genome, reported April 24 in the journal Science, could lead to important new findings about health and nutrition, a participating Michigan State University researcher said.


Yet inadequate federal funding jeopardizes important farm animal and biomedical research, according to other MSU scientists quoted in a paper published in the same magazine edition.


Theresa Casey, a research assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, joined 300 colleagues around the world in a six-year project to complete, annotate and analyze the bovine genome sequence. Now, researchers can conclude that humans are closer to the 22,000-gene bovine sequence than to those of mice or rats – which are by far the more common research subjects.


The new data is especially important given the economic and nutritional importance of cattle to humans, said Casey, whose specialty is study of lactation and mammary gland biology. She also co-authored a related report appearing in the journal Genome Biology discussing how the bovine lactation genome sheds light on the evolution of mammalian milk.


“We believe that milk evolved primarily as an immune function,” she said, due in part to cow milk’s anti-microbial properties.


“Hopefully,  we get the point across in the articles that by doing agricultural research we can understand much more about the world – trying to feed the world as well as keeping ourselves healthy,” she said.


But funding for such research is nowhere near adequate, a different group of researchers said, in a separate article in this week’s Science.


Only $32 million of the $88 billion 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture budget went toward competitive research grants for farm animals, wrote MSU researchers James Ireland, George Smith, Jose Cibelli and five colleagues from other institutions. The proportion of the National Institutes of Health budget for extramural support of human health research is more than 900 times larger, they said, while U.S. livestock and poultry sales exceed $132 billion annually.


With dwindling state and federal support, animal science programs are withering at American institutions, they said. Not only are certain farm animal species themselves facing threats – poultry in particular face loss of breed genetic diversity – but human health studies also might suffer from lack of funding for large-animal research.


While more difficult and costly to maintain, farm animals are often better research subjects than rats and mice, Ireland said, and size often does matter. Chickens contract hard-to-detect ovarian cancer as humans do, for example, and pigs are highly suitable for obesity, cardiovascular and alcohol consumption research.


“The cow is an excellent model for studies on reproduction in the human,” Ireland said, “because it’s one of the few species that actually has follicular growth dynamics very similar to what takes place in humans.”


Ireland and colleagues want increased federal consideration for large-animal models in grant awards and for establishment of dedicated research centers. Agriculture and veterinary schools also should recruit “nontraditional faculty” prepared to interact with the broader life-sciences community, they wrote, to seek National Institutes of Health funding and help break barriers that isolate agricultural programs.


Research conducted by Ireland, Smith and Cibelli is supported by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station.




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